Irish political parties and broadcasters are today locked in negotiations over a series of television debates that could swing the general election.
RTÉ is understood to be hammering out deals to forge three major head-to-head showdowns as well as a round-the-table show with the leaders of the main six parties.
Sources have indicated it is now inevitable that outgoing Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and his Opposition rival Enda Kenny will lock horns during a one-off special in the final week of the campaign.
However, problems putting Tánaiste Michael McDowell up against his would-be successor Labour leader Pat Rabbitte are believed to be frustrating current affairs show Prime Time’s producers.
A source close to the Progressive Democrats chief said the outspoken Minister for Justice had already agreed with both RTÉ and commercial rival TV3 to one-on-one televised debates with Mr Rabbitte.
The eloquent Labour leader deflected questions about the prospect yesterday during his first press conference since the General Election was announced.
TV3 are believed to be importing an idea from the US where party leaders face down rapid fire questions from two hard-hitting interviewers.
The format is similar to the CNN current affairs show Crossfire where guests are interrogated by presenters representing opposing political viewpoints.
A source close to the Taoiseach said he had already agreed to the face-to-face with Enda Kenny during the week leading up to the May 24 poll.
However, the source stressed that certain details had yet to be ironed out, adding: “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”
Fine Gael confirmed the television contest was being discussed.
However a party source said: “It is really now down to the broadcaster and the parties to finalise the format of any debates.
“At this stage it is still not clear what will happen – especially on the format of a programme involving all six parties.”
Although RTÉ have yet to agree on their main debates, producers were hoping to stage three contests: Ahern v Kenny; McDowell v Rabbitte and Green Party leader Trevor Sargent V Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams.
This would be complemented with a six-way debate around a table but the detailing of this format has caused concerns for a number of parties.
Mr Kenny will today step up his campaign to be the next Taoiseach with the signing of a “Contract for a Better Ireland” at his party’s election headquarters in Dublin.
Fianna Fail is rolling out the big guns with four Cabinet ministers – Micheal Martin, Brian Cowen, Seamus Brennan and Mary Hanafin – to unveil its economic promises.
Mr Rabbitte will launch his “Make a Change” tour at Government Buildings in Dublin before taking to the doorsteps in the west of the city.
Sinn Féin’s Education spokesman Sean Crowe will reveal his party’s priorities for schooling at their head offices in the capital.